Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck's 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel begins on the morning of Wang Lung's wedding day in pre-revolutionary China. He is a poor farmer, about to marry O-Lan, whom he has never met. O-Lan had been sold into slavery at a rich man's house when she was nine years old. With hard work, Lung and O-Lan survive many hardships and build a prosperous family estate. I thought I might find the book dated, but instead I was impressed. There was a point where I got so irritated with Wang Lung's infatuation with a prostitute that I almost had to stop reading - I felt so bad for O-Lan. I'm glad that I stuck with it. Buck is said to have honestly portrayed the cultural attitudes of the times - it was not a good time and place to be female. Knowing details about Buck's life (through Anchee Min's Pearl of China) gave me insight into the story as well. For example, Wang Lung's "little fool" seemed to be based on Buck's daughter, who was born with a developmental disability. This is a good story for readers who like family sagas, characters who develop over time, and detailed historical settings.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor, dramatized by Betty Quan

Young chef Jeremy Papier believes strongly in sourcing local ingredients for his small restaurant located on the edge of Vancouver's Chinatown. What could be more local than Stanley Park pigeons, ducks, raccoons and squirrels? Add a greedy coffee shop magnate, a bunch of homeless people and a decades-old murder and you've got a recipe for entertainment.

I listened to a BTC audiobook dramatized by playwright Betty Quan. The production is only two hours long, but the full cast plus music by The Colorifics go a long way to compensate for what's been cut from the original.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Wallace

I lead an adult storytime every Monday at noon at the Woodcroft library. The program is open to everyone, but the audience is mostly made up of developmentally handicapped adults and their caregivers. Nonfiction picture books are popular with this crowd, especially when I combine the stories with music.

The picture book edition of Gordon Lightfoot's song Canadian Railroad Trilogy seemed like a natural choice for the group. I was very impressed with Ian Wallace's vibrant artwork. It adds so much poignancy to the text that I got choked up with sadness the first time I read it. I almost decided against using this book for storytime, since I didn't want to embarrass myself with tears. It was too powerful to miss, however.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy has been nominated for the Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards. The book turned out to be an excellent choice for the adult storytime. It was also good to have the opportunity to talk about an issue which is highlighted by the art - the negative impact the railroad had on the lives of so many people as well as the environment. Lightfoot wrote the song in 1967 to celebrate our centennial and it's really the story of the settlement of Canada.

Other picture book/music combos that I've used for adult storytime include:
Skit-Scat, Raggedy Cat by Roxane Orgill and Sean Qualls (plus Ella Fitzgerald CD)
Shake, Rattle & Turn that Noise Down by Mark Alan Stamaty (plus Elvis Presley CD)
Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow by Gary Golio and Javaka Steptoe (plus Jimi Hendrix CD)
The Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music by Bret Berthold (plus Patsy Cline CD)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Chime by Franny Billingsley

The opening lines drew me right in: "I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged. Now, if you please." Briony Larkin hates herself thoroughly and yet I found her immediately endearing. This book is a must for readers who are suckers for a strong and original narrative voice, like I am. Briony is brilliantly witty and her actions - like the way she cares for her twin sister Rose - make it clear that she isn't a bad person at all. To heal her psychological wounds, Larkin must face the pain and unravel the mystery of her past.

The fantasy setting is Swampsea, a remote part of late-19th-century United Kingdom in the vicinity of a seaside swamp inhabited by various Old Ones like the Boggy Mun, Mucky Face, the Reed Spirits and the Dead Hand. The Old Ones cannot survive proximity to metal and industry, so everything is on the brink of change when Mr. Clayborne comes to town to drain the swamp and build a railway through it.

Along with Mr. Clayborne comes his bad-boy son, Eldric, who has been expelled from school. Briony believes herself both unloveable and unable to love, but Eldric is determined to change that. If you follow my blog, you'll know that I barely tolerate romance. Chime is a blend of fantasy, mystery and romance. I loved every powerful bit of it, including the romance. I even wept at the end.

Readalikes: For edgy romance and dangerous magic, Tithe by Holly Black. For an erie swamp setting and complex plot, Useful Idiots by Jan Mark. For a similarly strong narrative voice and romance (but no magic) The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. The closest match I can think of is Franny Billingsley's fabulous earlier novel, The Folk Keeper.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Evil? by Timothy Carter

In his northern Ontario hometown, Stuart Bradley finds that being gay only raises a few eyebrows, but being caught masturbating - committing the sin of Onan - results in "spiller" graffiti on his high school locker. He gets thrown out of his home and the situation escalates. Angry mobs fill the streets carrying torches, ready to drive Stuart and the other "spillers" out of town. It turns out that fallen angels are the source of all the hatred in this satirical novel for teens. Grade 8 - 12.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the story of a great battle between two sets of paternal cousins - the Pandavas and the Kauravas - is made fresh in this retelling from the viewpoint of a woman named Draupadi. I listened to an audiobook (Blackstone: 12.5 hours) read by Sneha Mathan. Her voice kept me enthralled and also prevented me from stumbling over the pronunciation of the multitude of Indic names. (When I encounter unfamiliar names in written text, I tend to invent a shorthand name without pronouncing it and recognize who it is each time I see that combo of letters. This method doesn't work well when there are many roughly similar names.)

Draupadi and her twin brother were born out of fire, but other than that unusual start to life, she seems like a normal princess. A normal princess whose best friend is Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu). Draupadi fights unsuccessfully to have the same education as her twin brother. She gets more valuable lessons from a sorceress who teaches her things like how to make a delicious curry from only an eggplant and a tiny bit of oil and salt.

Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, won Draupadi's hand in marriage through a test of strength and skill. When he returned home with her, Arjuna's mother said he must share whatever he had won with his brothers and that's how Draupadi ended up with five husbands. Meanwhile, Draupadi's romantic desire rests with another man, Karna, whom she had shamed at the marriage contest in order to save her brother from harm. I believe Divakaruni diverges from the traditional tale on this point; it certainly adds dramatic tension.

I love the way lots of magical bits - like a cow that grants wishes - pop up in the story that otherwise seems to be historically realistic. Fantasy fans and other readers who enjoy great world-building and a sweeping saga told from the viewpoint of a fascinating woman will probably enjoy this as much as I did.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Uncle Andy's by James Warhola

In this lively picture book, Jamie Warhola remembers one of many trips taken by his family of eight from their farm to visit their grandmother and uncle in New York City. Warhola's youngest uncle moved from Pittsburgh to New York City in 1949, dropped the a from his name, and became known as Andy Warhol. In 1962, the year of this particular trip, Warhol had his first solo exhibition, in which he introduced his soup can paintings.

Young Jamie sleeps in a makeshift bed surrounded by wooden boxes painted to look like Campbell's cardboard shipping cartons. "Uncle Andy had twenty-five cats, all named Sam. They were always hiding in a house that was just like a giant amusement park." The children's excitement is infectious and the story radiates creative energy.

The book's dust jacket shows Warhol's reaction when the family shows up announced on his doorstep. An interior page shows the same scene from the opposite perspective, behind Warhol's shoulder looking out his relatives. I love all the little details in the bright watercolour artwork; it's possible to spend a lot of time examining each spread. One page, for example, shows Jamie's grandmother at work in a corner, adding her penmanship to a piece of art. I learned at the Art Gallery of Alberta's current Warhol exhibit that Andy admired his mother's decorative Old World handwriting.

At the end of their visit, Jamie goes home with a box of art supplies given to him by his uncle. (And this book is proof that Jamie grows up to be an artist too!) It's a wonderful, kid-friendly introduction to the zany art of Andy Warhol.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Howl: A Graphic Novel by Allen Ginsberg and Eric Drooker

It's a howl of rage and despair at the inhumanity of contemporary existence and it's fueled by a deep reservoir of love. Ginsberg's famous poem defeated censorship attempts when it was first published in the mid-1950s and remains as powerful and relevant today as it was then.

I tried reading Howl several times in the past and never got very far, discouraged by the hellish vision and the breathless run-on sentence composition. I'm really grateful for this edition, with Eric Drooker's artwork from the motion picture Howl, published together with the words, because the illustrations made the poem accessible to me. I love it! I'm happy to have jumped onto the bandwagon of Howl's legion of admirers. I've now read it several times and also have read a text-only version just to compare the two. (The graphic novel version appears unchanged from the original.)

My favourite part is the Footnote to Howl at the end, with its belief in the sacred oneness of everything. "Holy, Holy, Holy." [...] "Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity! Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!"

The illustrations are actually stills from an animation sequence in the film and I was totally impressed by their power. The white typewriter font used throughout is effective against the dark colours of Drooker's art. The repeated motif of Ginsberg's fifties-era typewriter works well as a reminder of the labouring poet, the original print format, and the original time period. Depicting Moloch as a hybrid building/god/bull is suitably frightening. I liked the books stacked into precarious towers and human bodies shifting from flesh to skeletal. Scenes of Ginsberg's lover, Carl Solomon, in a mental hospital are especially poignant.

Next, I want to see the film, which has so far only had a single showing in Edmonton.

Note added June 22, 2011: Yay! I found the film at the library. It is wonderful. The extras at the end include Ginsberg himself reading the poem. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

The life of Nobel prize-winning author Pearl Buck is fictionalized in this novel of friendship that encompasses a century of Chinese history. I listened to a marvelous Recorded Books edition (10.45 hours) read by Angela Lin. Lin pronounces the names of places and people with Chinese tonal inflections and performs the English and Chinese songs acapello (instead of speaking the words) -what a delightful bonus!

Born in 1892, Pearl was the daughter of Christian missionaries and grew up not only fluent in several Chinese dialects but with a Chinese sensibility. Her father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was probably insane (which might be part of the missionary job description) although he endeared himself eventually to his congregation. It was an interesting juxtaposition to be listening to this audiobook over the same period of time that I was reading The Poisonwood Bible.

Anchee Min invented a Chinese lifelong friend for Pearl: Willow Yee. Willow describes living through chaotic changes in China, from the overthrow of the last Emperor, through the brutal Cultural Revolution (a time when it was dangerous to be a friend of "American cultural imperialist" Pearl Buck) and eventually the improvements that followed the arrest of Madame Mao. Pearl escaped being murdered during the violence in Nanking in 1927. She left China permanently in 1934, but she and her family are apparently still remembered fondly in China.

Chinese authors of Pearl Buck's time considered peasants unworthy subjects and so Pearl's novels were unusual not only in that Chinese peasants are the central characters, but also that she portrays them with humanity and compassion. Buck's The Good Earth has been on my to-read list for years and now one of my book discussion groups will be discussing it in July. Pearl of China has made me even more keen to read it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Rereading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

No matter how much I enjoy a book, I rarely read one more than once. Almost the only time I reread is for book clubs. It's been a decade since I read The Poisonwood Bible - too long ago to properly engage in a book discussion on it tomorrow evening. I could only remember that it's about an insane American missionary who moves with his family to the jungle in the Belgian Congo and that the narration alternates between the wife and four daughters. I also remembered that the pace slows down somewhere towards the middle of the book and that I wasn't as keen on the end part as the beginning.

Sometimes skimming is all I need to refresh my memory on a book I've read. Kingsolver is such an engaging writer, however, that I simply could not skim. I was immediately caught up in the story and read all 543 pages. It starts in 1959, at the brink of momentous changes about to take place in the Belgian Congo. After the immediacy of the girls' accounts of their experiences during their first year in the village of Kilanga, a larger view of political and economic upheaval is brought into perspective in the latter part of the book (the part that I had remembered as being rather slow) when the daughters continue to take turns, but their telling skips forward in big chunks of time. I found myself really appreciating Kingsolver's insights into the complicated current history of this part of Africa. 

If you haven't yet read The Poisonwood Bible, it's an epic family saga with memorable characters involved in an astonishingly foolhardy adventure not of their choosing. Highly recommended for rereading, too!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman

One night, twenty-year-old Wendy White disappeared from the town of 2,000 people in upstate New York where she'd lived all her life. Five months later, her newly-dead body was found in a ditch near her home. She had obviously been raped and tortured. The murderer was most likely someone local.

Cara Hoffman's jigsaw puzzle narrative style - jumping around in time and juggling multiple points of view - was disconcerting at first, especially when I tried too hard to sort out the timeline. When I decided to relax and trust the author, I enjoyed the way the pieces eventually slotted into place. The result is stunning and intense.

Another tragedy is connected to Wendy's death. Reader suspense builds as details of Wendy's ordeal and the nature of the second crime are slowly revealed. Hoffman provides passionate insights into the issues of violence against women, xenophobia, vigilante justice and environmental degradation from factory farming. A thought-provoking book with memorable female characters.

Note added June 3, 2012: I think The Rejectionist sells this book a lot better, comparing it to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. "Like basically this is the book TGWTDT was trying and failing miserably to be. So Much Pretty is written out of a place of straight fury" See the whole thing on her blog here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Swan by Mary Oliver

My two favourite poets are Carol Ann Duffy and Mary Oliver. What draws me to their work? Initially, it was the fact that they are lesbians, but the reasons I celebrate each new volume they publish are Duffy's witty irreverence and Oliver's tender reverence.

Oliver's Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (2010) is as wonderful as I've come to expect from her, "a literature of praise" for "this pretty, this perilous world." Each leaf "has a song in it" and the stones have heartbeats. The trees welcome her wanderings: "cool, beloved the household / of such tall, kind sisters."

Oliver explains why she goes alone into the woods: "I don't really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours." (from "How I Go to the Woods"). She goes on to say: "If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much." I feel like I've walked at Oliver's side after reading her words. I feel loved, even though Oliver does not know me, and grateful for the opportunity to experience the world through her senses. She reminds me that we belong to the earth and the "tissue of our minds is made of it."

Several poems are in elegy to her dog, Percy, who died in 2009. In "The Sweetness of Dogs," Oliver asks: "And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?" Yes, I think have. In Oliver's words, it exists because "joy is not meant to be a crumb." I will reread these poems often.

Readalikes: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Christian, the Hugging Lion by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Amy June Bates

This picture book is based on a true story and it rather horrifies me to learn that in 1969, a three-month-old lion cub was for sale in the exotic pet department at Harrods in London. A gay couple, Ace and John, bought the lion, called it Christian, and kept it in their apartment for a year, then brought it to a place in Kenya where it was rehabilitated successfully into the wild. The men missed him and returned to see him a couple of times.

Lions are the most social of all cats. The special thing that Christian used to do was to hug people, and he even did this when Ace and John visited him in Africa. Kinda cool to see it captured on video: . (I suggest muting the obnoxious music.)

Authors Richardson and Parnell also wrote And Tango Makes Three, which is a fabulous book. Christian, the Hugging Lion is aimed at the same preschool to Grade 2 audience, but it begs for additional discussion about the ethics of wild animals kept as pets.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby

Susan Juby's Alice, I Think is one of the funniest novels I've ever read. The Woefield Poultry Collective is even better. Twenty-something Brooklynite Prudence inherits Woefield farm on Vancouver Island and is determined to make a success of the rocky, mortgaged-to-the-hilt piece of property that comes with one curmudgeonly hired man (Earl) and one depressed sheep (Bertie).

The story has four quirky narrators: Prudence, Earl, Seth and Sara. I love each one them. Earl's voice reminds me of the earthy way several of my uncles talk. On one of the few occasions when Earl is lost for words, he says "I didn't know whether to shit or brush my hair."

A traumatic incident caused Seth to drop out of school in Grade 11 and in the four years since he barely left his room; most of that time was spent blogging about heavy metal music and celebrities. Seth lived right across the road from Woefield until his mother kicked him out and he knocked on Prudence's door.

Sara is a bossy no-nonsense eleven-year-old with a passion for fancy chickens. Talking about Left Behind, Sara says "It doesn't have a very good plot, but it's easier to read than the Bible, which Mrs. Blaine also lent me. Mrs. Blaine told me that Left Behind was based on true events that will take place in the future." Sara's preoccupation with the rapture brings recent real-life headlines to mind.

Prudence is good-hearted, enthusiastic and works incredibly hard. I knew it was useless to resist her charms. Go Prudence! Go Susan Juby!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

The Big Bang Symphony was a finalist in the lesbian fiction category of the Lambda Literary Awards last week and I thought it stood a very good chance at winning, although the competition was strong. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read the winning title - Inferno by Eileen Myles - but I love her writing too.

All four of Nancy Pearl's doorways provide equally good access into Bledsoe's novel about three women in Antarctica - character, setting, story and language - but I'm going to focus on the characters here. Cheerful Rosie is a cook, there for her third season and continuing to make the same bad choices in men as always. Taciturn Alice is a geologist doing post-doctoral research; she's fiercely intelligent but has difficulty comprehending emotions and metaphor. Mikala is a composer who is participating in an artist's residence program; she hasn't been able to write music since her partner Sarah died, but she's "hoping the South Pole would shock some music out of her." Mikala also has an ulterior motive - she plans to confront her father, a man she's never met, who is working at the South Pole.

Although only one of the three is a lesbian, someone shares a joke about the large numbers of them at the bottom of the world: "How do you get a woman in Antarctica?" "Be one." So perhaps it isn't surprising that Mikala meets the first person since Sarah's death who "seemed to exist in four dimensions, who billowed in her imagination." Alice is so perplexed by the attentions of three different men - including a lab tech with a "jaunty New Zealand accent, much more mountain and sea in it than a British accent" - that she tries to sort it out in a spreadsheet. And Rosie is the naughty girl with a generous heart, living dangerously but craving safety.

According to a science poster at McMurdo Station, "the environment caused the release of a rogue hormone that screwed up a person's judgement and memory." Rosie puts it more simply: "the Ice splits your heart right open." During the course of the story, the three women find themselves untethered and grappling for the ladder that will lead them into the next stage of their lives. Their friendship takes on critical importance when it becomes a matter of survival.

Readalikes: Tent Peg by Aritha van Herk (geology camp; bisexuality; bleak and beautiful landscape) and White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (ignore an incident of homophobia and enjoy the vivid setting of Antarctica; passion for science; survival suspense).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy

It's hard to write about Quebecois Gaetan Soucy's haunting gem of a novel without giving away spoilers because so much is hidden from the reader at the outset. The story is told in first person by one of a pair of siblings  raised by their mentally ill father in total isolation from the rest of the world. When their father commits suicide, the pair of teenagers are forced to interact with other people and to face the reality of their past.

I admire translator Sheila Fischman for her skillful and lyrical rendition from French into English. The siblings' peculiar vocabulary and idiosyncratic use of language is evident in this explanation of mannikins and how they differ from people ('neighbours'):

"We called them halves because they had only a body, made of wax and wood. They lacked the portion of their insides that allows one to suffer and so to call oneself a full-fledged neighbour, if I'm making myself clear. We can also name them dummies, that's allowed, although it's not as strong and not as accurate, and you don't do speech any favour to associate with words that rattle around in your sleeve after the handshake."

A reviewer in Le Monde wrote, "While the tale becomes more explicit as it progresses, it also becomes more bewitching, more mysteriously pulsating." The title is a clue to the tragedy at the heart of this story. Be prepared for a series of surprising jolts, and for horror leavened with a sparkling hope that comes from the unforgettable voice of the unusual narrator.